Running and Time: How Important Are The Numbers to Runners?

AJWs TaproomI’ve been running for almost 20 years. I’ve never really been a numbers person. In fact, I’m kind of an English Major humanities guy. But, running for the last 20 years has made me a little more aware of numbers and, to be honest, it’s made me care more about numbers.

I can’t remember how much money I made in my first job nor can I remember my dad’s birthday or my 14 year-old son’s cell phone number, but I can certainly remember how much time it took me to run the 1993 Fairmont Park 8.4 Miler (64:12). I can also remember my first marathon in Chambersburg, PA (3:19), my first 50K at Holcomb Valley (4:32), my first 50-miler at Crown King (8:12) and my first 100-miler at Angeles Crest (22:15). I can remember each and every one of my eight Western States finishes and I can remember, clearly, how much I beat Joe Kulak by at WS in 2005 (8:59) and how much Scott Jaime beat me by at Hardrock in 2009 (20:36). You see, the thing is, as much as I love to just go out there and run, the numbers really do matter.

And that is what surprised me so much about Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan’s assertion the other day that he ran a marathon in “two fifty something” when, in fact, he ran a 4:01. Now, I don’t intend to get political in this column nor do I mean to suggest that everyone should know, down to the second, what their best marathon time was, but I have been around runners for the last 20 years or so and I have almost never talked to someone who doesn’t have an indelible memory of their numbers. In fact, it’s one of the great ironies of running that we take something that is so inherently simple and make it complex by crunching, playing with, and manipulating the numbers.

I have friends who have saved literally decades worth of their training journals. Some of these journals contain written narratives and others contain course information but all of them, and I mean all of them, contain numbers, and often lots of them. Miles, paces, heart rates, repeats, temperatures, etc…they’re all there. And, in the end, the numbers may be all you need.

Last week, I was talking to one of the new parents at my school. He has three kids all of whom have excelled in team sports, his two sons at football and basketball and his daughter at soccer and lacrosse. And, as much as he was proud of his kid’s successes, he was also increasingly disillusioned by the subjective, political, and capricious nature of youth team sports. Then, he said, “Andy, your sport is different” and pointed to his watch. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, who your father is, or what you look like, the watch doesn’t lie.”

And maybe that is why the numbers matter to us. In a world of increasing dishonesty, insincerity, and deceit we always know where we stand with The Watch.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Terrapin Hopsecutioner IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Georgia. Their Hopsecutioner IPA is bold and sophisticated much like the talented musicians and artists who hail from this great southern college town.

Call for Comments

  • How well do you know your running numbers?
  • What’s the oldest personal running number that you can recall?
  • Anyone actively try to avoid “numbers” in your running? If so, how?

There are 49 comments

  1. Drew

    Very true. While I struggle to remember birthdays, names and telephone numbers (thankfully modern phones get rid of this problem) I remember all of my PBs at every distance and also my other times at the majority of races. The only reasoning I can give for this is that the effort of achieving the time means the time itself becomes indelibly stuck in your head.

    Still, sometimes I'd swap it for getting a birthday right!

  2. Heath

    Great column AJW! It's unfathomable that anyone could mistake their marathon time by over an hour. You running Douthat 40 tomorrow?

    Thanks for taking the time to share your refreshing perspective every week!


  3. Brett

    Well the title answers the question – Paul Ryan is not a runner. Who knows why his answer to the marathon was not 'I think my time was…' or 'I can't remember…' or something else.

    Non-runners apparently care about running about as much as they do their form when doing pull-ups:

    As I watch other sports with judges and referees I thank God the sport I choose to be involved with has The Watch.

  4. Trail Clown

    Perhaps he thought he ran a 3:50 something (which would have been pretty close to 4:01) and then, because he doesn't obsess over numbers, mis-remembered it to the 2:50's. Probably wasn't trying anything sneaky. I too, can remember every single one of the times I've run for the 45 marathon/ultras I've run. Drives my wife nuts when she hears me listing them off…

    1. Peter Andersson

      I can't remember the licens plate numbers on my first good car, then again even based on my speeding habits back then I would never brag about it to gain NASCAR fans votes even if I did. ;-)

  5. Brad D

    I actually thought the same thing trail clown said when I first heard the story. I know that I've slipped up a time or two. His camp came out a few days later and cleared it up. No biggie. Let's just all be friends, crack a couple of brews and talk about how awesome we used to be :)

  6. FastED

    I remember my first marathon time some 30+ years ago down to the second – 4.49:59. As well as remember hearing your booming voice no more than a minute behind me at the bottom of Grant-Swamp in the twilight hours. Now I don't know the context of why Paul Ryan said what he said but it gives me the impression that he wants to be likeable, relatable, and revered. If you've only run one marathon in your life then the time is etched in your brain like 1+1 regardless if you are a runner or not.

    AJW – the beer selection is off the charts this week! That beer was on my top 3 list for quite some time and only fell off because I couldn't find it and my taste buds couldn't remember

  7. Leerunner

    As an Athens, GA trail runner I too love your beer selection this week! Terrapin has several great beers. And yes, the watch does tell the story and we runners never forget how the story goes (whether we like it or not).

  8. Ed Cacciapaglia

    Even though I took 29 years off running between high school and getting back into running in 2001, I remember my best running times on the track in high school. I think most people make it a point to remember their best performances. Also, most one time marathon finishers I know can clearly their finishing times. Most of us runners are somewhat anal about remembering and documenting our times. To answer your questions:

    1) Since 2002 I have kept a log book, so I know most of my numbers including workout times.

    2) I remember my best times during my high school career, 1968-1972 – 2 mile run – 9:37 Cronley Invitational on a cinder track (trail running in my future!); I think it was 1971, though it could have been 1972. 1 mile run – 4:35 on a 4 mile relay team.

    3) I don't avoid numbers. Some days are good (Bull Run 50 Mile this year) and I've had some days I where I struggled to finish, most recently the Catoctin 50-K where I mostly walked the last 16 miles due to nasty calf cramps and managed to get in 1 minute before the cut-off at 9:14. Better an ugly finish than a DNF!

    AJW, I always like to see your beer of the week! Our rewards for running hard.

    1. AJW

      Brownie, that's awesome! It must have been the "Great Valley Marathon." When I did it in 1993 it was 2 degrees at the start.

      And yes, you are a lock for top-10 at WS if they ever let you in:)

    1. Pete

      Isnt the point of a long trail race to get from point a to point b? Why does it matter if you go off trail. Just adds to the fun. Ugg America can be so boring.

        1. AJW

          I agree with Bryon. Let's try not to drag switchbacks into the discussion. I was more interested in exploring this whole notion of time and memory as it relates to our running.


  9. Scott Williams

    I graduated high school in 1990. I ran x-country my Sophomore, Junior, and Senior year. I also ran track all those years. I was the number 3 man on my x-country team. I can't for the life of me remember what my best time was in x-country; I know it was in the 17's but I don't remember to the second.

    In track I specialized in the mile. I DO remember my best time there was 4:59 and I only remember that because I was excited about breaking the 5 minute barrier.

    I ran x-country in college. I can't for the life of me remember what my times were at any single race. I was again the number 3 man on my team and the distance was 8k. But again, if you asked me what my best time was I couldn't remember. I don't even remember a ballpark number.

    I didn't pick up running again until 2 years ago. I skipped marathons completely and went straight to ultras. I couldn't tell you exactly what my time was at my first 50k. I 'think' it was 6:36 or something around there. I know my 2nd 50k (2 weeks later) was about 5:40.

    I can tell you what my time was at this years Dirty Thirty but ONLY BECAUSE I JUST LOOKED IT UP IN THE MOST RECENT EDITION OF ULTRARUNNER MAGAZINE.

    Point is, some people can remember race times or personal bests over every distance. I'm not one of them; and I'm pretty sure there are plenty of others like me.

    Good article though.

  10. Nelson

    I do enjoy your articles, and I kind of wish I drank beer. I couldn't say offhand what my PRs are for half, or full, or 50K or 50M. My Garmin has lasted a long time – I only use it on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings when I pace my Dallas Running Club marathon training group.

    Thanks for a good read.

  11. Wyatt Hornsby

    Absolutely awesome column, AJW. It's dead on correct. I have NEVER met a runner who doesn't look at the numbers. Some are more neurotic than others, but I think it's fair to say this is a sport whose participants pay close attention to things like mileage, pace, time, etc. We don't forget the results from any race. I can tell you the times for every single race I've run. I can tell you what each race I've run was like–with clarity of thought. Some things you never forget. I'm not sure why we never forget our races–it's just one of those things that makes running kind of unique, I guess. That said, I was astonished that Paul Ryan couldn't remember the exact time from his only marathon time. It just didn't make sense to me. Now we know why he was evasive–because you're evaside when you're lying through your teeth.


  12. Andy

    So I guess Paul Ryan and I do have one thing in common: My first road marathon was 4:04, my second 4:02, and my 3rd 4:03. Only after running a few ultras did I break the 4-hr barrier, running a 3:45 2 wks after UROC last year. I also remember all my 50k, 50m, and 100k times (yeah, no hundo yet), which is very strange because otherwise I am *not* a numbers guy – No training logs, no Garmin, only the watch that says I ran for 5 hours or whatever.

    Hmmm, maybe Paul Ryan is on to something: Trimming my PRs by memory could be my very own Path to Prosperity. Now if I could just get that to work for my budget … :-)

  13. Paul

    The numbers burn into my mind as well, I can remember all of my current PRs for 1Mi., 5k, 10k, 1/2, full, 50k, and 50M. I can also remember the times of my 1st and 2nd 5k's and my 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th 1/2 (~5-6yrs ago). Strange how the numbers stick.

    As far as Paul Ryan goes, I can't imagine that a runner, active or not, could ever mis-remember their marathon that badly. I'd have to guess that if everyone who has ever run in a timed marathon event was polled on what their fastest marathon was, that ~99% of them would know their time within ~15-20 minutes.

  14. Myles Smythe

    To add to the numbers. I clearly remember all of my race dates (most of them anyways) and I really impress people when I can recall dates, all I do is remember that it was the Wednesday after a race and magically I can recall dates. Helps when I'm running a lot of races every month or so :) I can also remember the exact drop mileage for all of my dnf's.

    I actively avoid the clock when I train and race, I don't wear a watch. My goal is to avoid stressing over pace and time during my run. That in no way prevents me from crunching numbers at the end of a run. But it gives my mind a break.

    I can remember stealing the bacon when I was 9, in exactly 3.7 seconds! J/K!

  15. KenZ

    I am a total numbers guy, but only remember the times that I care about. Which is why even though I track every run, HR, terrain, split, etc, yet I too screwed up and mis-told a friend my 5k time by over a minute (which is pretty significant if you think about it, and we're talking about a 5k that happened just a month prior). I just don't care enough about 5ks to care enough to remember my time. But you can bet your butt that I remember my last 100 miler to the second, and most of my splits too!

    Even as a self-proclaimed bleeding heart liberal, I totally cut Ryan slack and complete forgiveness on this. Moreover, I'll go out on a limb and state that I think it's awesome that he ran a marathon. Just by getting out there he's setting a great example that we see so infrequently from politicians. So while I won't vote for him, I give him mucho respect for his can-do attitude. Here's to you Paul Ryan; if you can drag some of those other politicians from both sides out with you on runs, maybe we'll foster some friendships and get something done.

  16. Andy L.

    I was willing to cut Paul Ryan some slack until I actually read the interview. Once you read the interview, you realize that he may or may not actually remember his time, but he was intentionally trying to create a false view of himself, maybe because he is insecure, maybe because he feels it necessary to impress others.

    Here's the interview…

    Hugh Hewitt: That’s okay. Hey, in high school, what did you do in high school? Were you a speech and debate guy? Were you a bandie? What were you?

    Paul Ryan: No, I was student government and athletics, honor society, you know, that kind of thing. I was kind of a combination. I was class president my junior year, I was the school board rep my senior year. I lettered in varsity, you know, my first year in high school, mostly soccer and track. I was a distance runner and a soccer player. So kind of well-rounded. I can’t, I can play a cowbell. That’s about it for instruments.

    HH: Are you still running?

    PR: Yeah, I hurt a disc in my back, so I don’t run marathons anymore. I just run ten miles or yes.HH: But you did run marathons at some point?

    PR: Yeah, but I can’t do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.

    It's not just that he claimed a sub 3 marathon. He also claimed that he "doesn't run marathons anymore. I just run ten miles…" saying it as though he used to run marathons a lot, but now he's just limited to ten mile runs. (which he makes it sound like he does routinely, which i'd be very very surprised if he actually does. )

    The interview continues:

    HH: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?

    PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.

    HH: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University.

    PR: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.

    Notice the plural and how, when the interviewer is changing the subject, and Paul Ryan goes back to the running and reconfirms that he was fast when he was younger. I mean, clearly this is someone lying. It's not misremembering. You don't misremember running multiple marathons when you've run one. After the serious pain I was in after running one marathon, i remember swearing i'd never run another. Of course I ran many more, and then some ultras. But still, my point is, if someone asked me what my PR is after I'd run one marathon, I would've said, "Well I've only run one marathon so I guess it's a PR but it took me more than four hours." Of course, this isn't what he said. Paul Ryan was very clearly meaning to mislead here…

  17. Brank

    Maybe Paul Ryan is a fisherman and hangs out with John Kerry. Fisherman always remember the catch to be bigger and better than they are..John Kerry thought he ran the Boston Marathon.

  18. Brian K

    “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, who your father is, or what you look like, the watch doesn’t lie.”

    The watch doesn't lie, and in the end nobody can run the race for us, and yet (though Romney and company will deny it) as Obama said "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help…"

    Money and family may not being the deciding factors for our successes, but that kind of positive support sure doesn’t hurt..

  19. Eric

    Am I the only guy who doesn't remember times? Granted, I've got a horrible memory to begin with, but they're really not that important to me. I like passing other people and competing like crazy, but I'm more interested in how I felt and what place I got over what the clock said. I honestly couldn't tell you any of my PRs.

    1. Johnny K

      Me too. I love running and being out there but I don't remember my times at all. Doesn't mean I love it any less, but I just don't care about the numbers that much. Short term the numbers are great for measuring progress, but long term it's much more about the experience and time with friends.

      1. Hone

        I am with you guys. I do not track mileage, pace, or any of that crap. I could not tell you the times of half of the races I have run. Some of us just run as a hobby and try to keep the clutter confined to our lousy jobs (those of us that are lucky enough to have them nowdays).

        After all of the straight up lies we heard at the DNC it is funny how runners are so upset about Ryan lying about a stupid marathon time. Oh snap!

        1. George

          But why would you lie about a marathon time? You can't tell me he didn't know the difference between a sub-three and a four hour marathon. I cannot accept that.

          All politicians manipulate the truth…Dems, GOP, ALL of them. But that is usually to try to alter opinions to get votes.

          Lying about an accomplishment as big as a marathon does not make sense, even for a politician. If he said "six hours plus" all of us runners would have still been willing to slap him on the back and congratulate him. Something is rotten here…sounds like Congressman Ryan has lied enough that he doesn't know how to tell the truth about anything anymore.

  20. Aaron Sorensen

    I've done so many "mile running" by the numbers.

    One time I ran a 10k with my brother and his wife.

    I ran with them for the first mile and by minute 4 I told them "our first mile will be a 7:43".

    Sure wnough as we hit the one mile mard, someone was there with a stop watch and as we crossed he said 7:43.

  21. Mick

    I was once told by a spectator that I'd finished 26th. I shared my result with friends and family only to find out two days later in the official results that I'd told everyone the right time but was in fact 28th. I was devastated, not because I'd lost two places but because I'd unintentionally undermined two guys achievements. I proceeded to contact everyone I'd told and set them straight. They didn't care and my wife thought I was mad but it felt like something I had to do.

  22. Just Adam

    Please never bring politicians or politics onto this site. Almost nothing infuriates me more. This site is a safe-place (so to speak), that I value highly. I don't want to have to look elsewhere, or be left disillusioned by even a perceived political bias (either direction).

    Even if you truly weren't taking a cheap jab at a candidate, you open up discussion in the comments. Next thing you know, infighting…


    Wow, an iRunFar post inspired by a presedential candidate, during election season. Seemed more like a 'proof' that Paul Ryan is a liar. The central point of the article was great, and could have stood on its own.

    I don't know the man, nor can I prove he's never run a sub-four marathon, so I'm not going to worry about his running history; rather his record for trying to keep my county free, strong, and independent (citizen and nation). Commenters, please refrain from regurgitating ignorant statements… You are strong people, known for not taking shortcuts– do your own thinking too.

  24. Billy Simpson

    Speaking of time and beer, i remember when the wrist chronograph came out. Not sure of the year but i think the first company to mass market to runners was Casio. Someone correct if I'm wrong on that.

    I remember one night at our favorite watering hole here in Memphis after a track workout, we were maybe on our second pitcher and we found a great use for the new timing device. Fill the glass, take the watch off the wrist, start the watch, drop the watch into the full glass of beer, slam the beer, stop the watch. Slowest man buys the next pitcher.

    Bunch of fast, skiiny runners drinking pitchers…..go figure.

    This had to be in the late 70's and those days are long gone but i do remember my PR at that event was 3.2 seconds!

    And yea, i remember my p'r's at every running distance too!


  25. Garvin

    Andy clearly threw a sucker punch at Paul Ryan, and by extension to all conservatives who read this site. I support Just Adam’s request to please never bring politics into this site; I too had perceived it to be a safe place from political innuendo and veiled ideological assaults.

    If you want documented information on a deceitful politician, go see the movie 2016 – if you have the guts to watch your Marxist hero Obama under analysis. Obviously many of the commenters on this thread preach to each other and so haven’t a clue about Obama’s origins because they’ve drank his Koolaid.

    1. Bryon Powell

      You and Adam's point are taken regarding avoiding anything even related to politics. Let us continue to keep iRunFar politics free. I hope all of us, regardless of political leaning, can do so from this point forward. Sound good?

  26. Rune

    Who says if you've only run one marathon the time is etched into your head??? You do and that fine, but there's 6.9 billion other people on the planet, many of whom don't give a rats ass about their times or what they ran 20+ years ago. Both my brothers have run a marathon and a few ultras that I have directed. Both ran BQs. Both ran impressive ultra times. Without a doubt if you call them today (10 years after the fact) they would have no clue how far they ran or what their time was. Hard to imagine but they were fast and running just didn't mean anything to them. And there's nothing wrong with that. Heck how many times have you heard someone say they ran a 5km marathon?! And for the record I understand SOME runners, and most of the ones that regularly run, know times. I can recite every single one of my times but I'm a numbers guy. I just think its awful naive to think every single runner over the history of running HAS to remember their times and have it etched into their head.
    Happy trails,

  27. Hone

    Here is a quote Ryan recently said about "Marathongate"..

    "I hurt my back when I was in my mid-20s, so I had to stop running. And so obviously, my perception of races and times was off,” Ryan said. “I thought that was an ordinary time until my brother showed me a 3-hour marathon is, you know, very — crazy fast. I ran a 4-hour marathon."

    Maybe this is his attempt to cover up his lie or maybe he is just a hobby jogger and forgot about his 1 marathon that he ran decades ago. Some runners tend to have a large part of their identity and self-worth tied to their PRs. I am not sure if Ryan is one of those people.

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